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Thursday, December 26, 2013

'Worker Owned Cooperatives' Needed to Restore Emeryville's Tarnished Reputation

A Large Corporate Low Wage Service Sector 
Makes For a Town Without a Soul 

We Need Living Wage Jobs

Enter Worker Owned Co-Ops

Opinion/News Analysis
There's been much public debate in Emeryville over the years over how to best develop our town even as City Hall long ago settled on a pro-developer course, regardless of the debate.  As a result of this willful ignorance, many have come to rightfully condemn Emeryville decision makers over the flawed auto-centric model of development those decision makers have brought to our town over the last 20 some odd years.  This model, favored by developers, has brought us lots of shopping malls and drive-in drive-out lofts (formally condos, now morphing into one bedroom 100% rental projects).
This is well understood by Emeryville residents as our town's once unique character is eroded and the streets become ever more clogged with traffic.
But what's been debated less is how this model, resplendent with fast food franchises and retail chain stores, also brings a plethora of low wage/ no benefits service jobs that seem to be attached at the hip with this brand of development.  So ubiquitous now is this kind of development in Emeryville, minimum wage/ zero benefits service sector jobs have fairly come to be seen as representative of Emeryville and its values by the greater community.
This is who we are at this point, like it or not.
This is Emeryville
Minimum wage / no benefits;
the corporate service sector is
who we now are.

As Emeryville starts a new building spree in the wake of a recovering regional economy and with a finite amount of land left to develop, we need a new development model to fill out our town, one that will temper our 20 year binge of alienating, unsustainable and usurious development.  We need a new paradigm of public policy out of City Hall to create retail service sector jobs that pay a living wage and treat their workers with respect and dignity.  We need to become a model for how cities can move forward instead of a model for what's gone wrong in the Bay Area and beyond.
Attracting worker owned co-operatives to our town offers us the chance to remake our image and reclaim a city that more properly reflects our values.

Formerly known as a mecca for high paying mostly blue collar jobs in the East Bay, Emeryville long ago jettisoned that mantle, now instead there's been a wholesale embracing of the corporate low wage service sector model.  In so doing, not only have we thrown our town over to cars and all the degraded environment that comes with that, we also have shirked our civic moral duties to build a town that works for everybody.  The fact that we didn't shirk these duties in the past means we can do it again.  We can create a new municipal polity.

Enter Worker Owed Co-Ops
Businesses where the workers themselves own the enterprise represent a different model for how retail stores and other business can be refashioned in Emeryville.  These worker owned businesses offer a living wage and benefits for their workers. They also offer Emeryville residents a moral choice as they comport their daily transactions in the commons.
 So what exactly is a worker owned co-op?  The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC or "no boss"), the oldest and largest regional association of democratic workplaces in the United States, tell us these kinds of businesses are enterprises that produce goods, distributes goods and/or provides services and are owned and democratically controlled by its worker-owners.  Worker owned cooperatives generally have comparable or better pay (salary/wages plus profit-sharing) and benefits than comparably-sized conventional businesses in similar industries.  This is because the worker-owners decide what percentage of profits will go to themselves and what percentage will be retained by the cooperative.  Moreover, worker cooperatives don’t have overpaid managers, owners and outside shareholders who siphon money from the business.  These businesses allow money spent by residents to stay in the community, bolstering the local economy.  Worker owned co-ops run the gamut on types of businesses from bike shops and restaurants to web services, financial services and bookstores.  Just about any business can be a worker owned co-op.

Emeryville already has two such worker owned co-ops right now, San Pablo Avenue's Arizmendi Bakery and Pedal Express, a bicycle courier company on Powell Street. 

Pedal Express
Pedal Express is the East Bay's only bicycle courier company.  They have been worker owned and operated for the past twenty years and perhaps ironically count the City of Emeryville as one of their clients.
Co-owner Dominic Lucchesi says Pedal Express offers a different vision from Emeryville's current business sector model.  He told the Tattler, "Cooperatives provide long-term job opportunities with growth potential.  We at Pedal Express pride ourselves on paying a living wage, offering meaningful benefits, and encouraging flexibility and creativity.  The cooperative model also provides workers with a sense of ownership and connection to their community and its businesses.  These desirable qualities are often lacking in the low-paying service sector jobs that are all too common in today's corporate franchises and big box stores."

Arizmendi Bakery vs Panera Bakery
Arizmendi Bakery has operated at 4301 San Pablo Avenue since 2003 after former councilman John Fricke worked to attract the popular cooperative to the newly built Emeryville Promenade amid skeptical colleagues on the Council.  The bakery has been extremely popular offering a locally owned counter point to the national chain restaurant  I-HOP also in the Promenade development.
Arizmendi Bakery and Panera Bakery on 40th Street offers us a chance to directly compare the two business models:

Arizmendi Bakery (worker owned cooperative model)-
  • pays at least $16 per hour
  • full health insurance and dental coverage for all
  • worker owned and democratically run
  • worker/owners share in year end profits
  • stipends paid for work related purchases
  • five Bay Area locations
  • Emeryville store is independently owned

Panera Bakery (standard Emeryville corporate model)-
  • pays employees $8.06 per hour
  • no benefits
  • stockholder owned and run by CEO and Board of Directors
  • more than 1500 locations across the US and Canada
  • corporate headquarters in St Louis MO
  • Emeryville unit sends its profits to the corporate headquarters

Worker owned cooperatives have also been shown to increase social justice and stability.  Cal Berkeley graduate student Amanda Cook, wrote a 2009 thesis documenting this benefit.  From her study, "In many conventional workplaces, workers perceive their interests as opposing corporate interests. Worker cooperatives, on the other hand, promote the idea that business practices should be compatible with everyone’s interests. Instead of becoming a battleground for individual and corporate interests, worker cooperatives adopt a family-like atmosphere of support, mutual responsibility, and, of course, cooperation."    
Ms Cook documents how worker cooperatives provide benefit to workers and the surrounding community in three major ways; she shows how this work " intrinsically valuable, participatory democracy is an educational activity, and active participation in decision making in one social sphere is likely to encourage active participation in other spheres."

The plight of minimum and low wage workers has been much in the news recently as fast food and other workers take to the streets to protest.  The corporate model is cruel and not sustainable.  These workers cannot survive on these wages and many are forced to use food stamps and other government provided services to make ends meet. Besides being an unethical abdication of government duty, this model represents a transfer of wealth from the taxpayers to the wealthy.  Emeryville has been complicit in this.
However Dave Karoly of NoBAWC says it doesn't have to be this way, "There is no reason why there can't be more than two worker owned cooperatives in Emeryville.  The establishment of more (worker) cooperatives in Emeryville would help change the perception of people living outside Emeryville that the city is just a destination for retail chain shopping" he told the Tattler.

The Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, historically an advocacy group for Emeryville's largest corporations on the other hand doesn't appear to be comfortable with such worker empowerment talk.  Chamber CEO Bob Canter was contacted for this story but he refused to comment.

Developers, itching to take advantage of a newly favorable market (especially in rental properties), are loading up the agendas at the Planning Commission and at City Council meetings.  A glut of new residential development is moving forward towards permit approval at City Hall from the Sherwin Williams project to the Avalon Bay project, to the Market Place development to the (just approved) Maz project, and there's more in the pipeline.  These development proposals all contain retail components along their respective street fronts.  This is where a new polity of worker owned cooperatives can be developed.

We need to realize how un-radical this whole idea is....or should be.  Neighboring cities are expanding these cooperatives and they're realizing the benefits.  Indeed, our own General Plan requires us to approve development that provides jobs for Emeryville residents.  These low wage service sector jobs aren't cutting it.  Workers at these jobs have to travel to our town for their employment since these corporate service jobs don't pay enough to afford to live in Emeryville.  This type of retail and fast food development is expressly forbidden by Emeryville's General Plan and yet there doesn't seem to be much of an interest among the decision makers at City Hall to rectify this.

Emeryville's new mayor Jac Asher is an outlier.  She agrees worker owned cooperatives offer a better way for Emeryville moving forward and she has publicly called for it.
We like Mayor Asher's idea; let's start adding these worker owned neighborhood enhancing kinds of retail establishments as conditions of approval for these incipient development proposals across town.  We've had more than our share of the neighborhood degrading and morally bankrupt low wage service sector development here thank you.  Let's finally start the job of making a livable town here in Emeryville.


  1. That's a really telling comparison between Arizmendi and Panera, making it hard to see why anyone, even a ditzy Chamber of Commerce, would favor the Panera model over the Arizmendi one.

    Our town is probably big enough to make good use of both, but we've reached the saturation point with the low-wage, send-the-profits-out-of-town variety. Why throw any more eggs in that sagging basket?

    For better balance, it makes sense to support our mayor's and the Tattler's goals of encouraging the growth of businesses that treat their staff well and that keep their profits in town.

  2. Why wouldn't the Chamber of Commerce want to comment on this? They are supposed to be a business advocacy group. These cooperatives are businesses. The chamber should be supportive.

  3. Thanks for this! I really enjoyed the articled. Very timely. It was great to hear that Jac Asher has called for workers' cooperatives. Can you point to any source for this or any statement she's made on the matter. Thanks much.

    1. Ms Asher called for worker owned cooperatives to be considered for the proposed retail at the Sherwin Williams site. The comment was made at a recent Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting as the committee was discussing the SW project.